Broken but never beaten
Lindy Barber ’11 turned injury into triumph to become among the fittest on earth.
For an elite athlete, sometimes the words “can’t,” “don’t” and “shouldn’t” can be just as motivating as any coach’s pep talk.
After an injury that left her lying helpless on the floor, doctors told Lindy Barber her days of working out were over. She refused to accept their prognosis. Instead, she relied on her years of sports conditioning and the education she received as an exercise science major at UD to guide her road to recovery. Last fall, she was one of the athletes featured in the new book Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers and Unstoppable Athletes by Haley Shapley.
“I feel like I’ve been in motion my whole life,” Barber said. “As a kid I was always running around the house and into everything. I got into sports at an early age and tried everything — volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, track, soccer — anything I could to keep moving.”
“I feel like I’ve been in motion my whole life ... anything I could to keep moving.”
A natural athlete, Barber played varsity soccer at UD. After a couple of seasons, she developed a passion for personal training and left the team to devote more time to her studies and new interests. She became the program director for personal training at RecPlex. She played club soccer to stay connected to the sport.
During winter break of her senior year, her sister-in-law invited her to a CrossFit class. Barber said she was instantly hooked by the high intensity interval training and variety of workouts. Spring semester, Barber could be spotted in a corner of RecPlex practicing routines and maneuvers. She incorporated weight training to increase strength and build upper-body muscle mass. She worked hard in the classroom and the weight room with the goal of spring graduation and a regional qualifying round at the CrossFit Games.
Without a coach to guide her training, Barber watched a lot of videos and developed her own system, concentrating on squatting and dead-lifting. There was some pain, but as a lifelong athlete you learn to push through it, she said.
In spring 2011, a workout session brought pain she’d never felt before.
“I was in the middle of a back squat when I heard something snap,” Barber said. “Thankfully, I had the catch racks in place because I completely collapsed on the floor beneath the bar.”
“I was in the middle of a back squat when I heard something snap.”
The racks likely spared her from additional injury, but the searing pains throughout her back and shooting down her hips and legs told her something was seriously wrong. Laying helpless on the floor, Barber needed a friend to carry her home.
In the midst of studying for finals, Barber found herself still in pain, increasingly incapacitated and searching for answers. A chiropractor X-rayed her back and found she had three spinal conditions: spina bifida, scoliosis and a fractured L5 vertebra. Her back bones never formed properly and her spinal cord wasn’t adequately protected. Her constant activity strengthened her muscles and compensated for the spinal deformities, but on the day of her injury muscles weren’t enough to keep her together. Her back literally broke.
The doctor told her to rest. Do nothing, he said. Stop working out. No weight lifting. And see an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible.
Instead, Barber’s immediate priority was to finish finals. It wasn’t easy, but she was able to walk to the platform to receive her diploma at graduation. Her next stop was to a doctor back home in Louisville, Kentucky, who added bulging discs to Barber’s diagnosis. He prescribed ultrasound and laser therapy. When that didn’t help, he suggested surgery with no guarantee it would work. It might even make the situation worse, he told her.
It was decision time. In her gut, Barber said she knew doing nothing wasn’t the answer. Her training in exercise science at UD taught her just the opposite — when muscles are strong, they protect the bones — so she decided to get moving again, slowly and carefully, and see what happened.
It was decision time. In her gut, Barber said she knew doing nothing wasn’t the answer.
She returned to UD in fall 2011 to begin graduate studies, all the while testing her limits and taking copious notes on her workouts and the results. Progress was steady and positive, and before long she had begun incorporating some CrossFit exercises into her routine and even resumed light weight training.
Her intuition to keep moving proved correct, and by February of 2012, Barber regained her strength and mobility to a degree that let her enter her first regional CrossFit competition — almost exactly a year after her devastating injury. She placed seventh, an impressive showing for a rookie.
“Mentally and physically, I knew what I was doing was working, but I needed validation. I didn’t want to put myself at risk,” she said. A new MRI scan gave her the confirmation she was looking for. “The doctor said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve got the back muscles of a linebacker. It’s working. Keep it up.’”
“The doctor said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve got the back muscles of a linebacker. It’s working. Keep it up.’”
Barber decided to train full time for the CrossFit Games, competing in 2013 and 2015 as an individual. She then joined Team CrossFit Mayhem Freedom and won two championship titles in 2016 and 2018, and came in second in 2017. CrossFit dubs its champions “The Fittest on Earth,” a momentous title for a woman with a broken back.
Barber retired in 2018 after competing at the top level of the sport for six years. These days she runs an online personal training business to assist others on their fitness journey, offering programs specifically designed for those with back issues. Barber makes guest training visits to gyms across the United States and around the world, something she said she plans to start again once the pandemic is over. For now, virtual seminars can be broadcast anywhere, expanding her reach.
“With competitions behind me, now I focus my energy on other people, helping them achieve their health and fitness goals,” she said. “No matter if you’re 21 or 75, you can recover from an injury, you can come back, and you can get stronger because of it and live a healthier life overall.”